My rabbinic colleagues often remark to me how much they care about and even love their congregants. In particular, they appreciate the compliment-giver, volunteer-giver, and the humble servant. The compliment-giver feels deep appreciation for all the community provides and likes to express this gratitude. The volunteer-giver does not just make suggestions for improvements but jumps at the opportunity to contribute to improve the community. The humble servant is rarely seen in public leadership but is consistently contributing behind the scenes to ensure that things operate smoothly. Serving these individuals makes the strenuous work of rabbis an utter delight.
One of the most common complaints I hear from rabbinic colleagues, on the other hand, is not the long hours, stressful counseling sessions, or the difficulty of attracting new members. Indeed, worse than low numbers is the appearance of a challenging congregant. Just as there is almost always a student in the class holding a group back with constant jokes, there are often a handful of shul members who strain the emotional patience of the rabbi and other congregational leaders.
There are three types of tough congregants: the kvetcher (complainer), the schnorer (beggar), and the mazik (troublemaker). The kvetcher is irritated by everything – the custom should always be different, and everything is offensive. The schnorer always wants something – worst of all, they take your time even when there is no question or task to address. The most draining, however, is the mazik. This individual feeds off of conflict and tension, and always needs to be the center of attention. Anyone else, especially those in leadership, is subject to attack at any moment. The mazik alienates other congregants, frustrates spiritual leadership, and makes the congregation an unsafe and unhealthy place. Because of these individuals, well-meaning people searching for spiritual succor instead dread going to the synagogue, beit midrash, or community program. One rabbinic colleague recently shared with me that he quit leading his pulpit he loved after many years of service because of a small handful of these individuals who drained all of his spiritual energy.
Of course, these challenging congregants must be shown respect and love (and on occasion encouraged to seek psychiatric treatment), but we also need defined boundaries for the preservation of the community. After all, it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch. The sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yokhai tells this story: “A man in a boat began to bore a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. ‘What concern is it of yours,’ he responded, ‘I am making a hole under my seat, not yours.’ They replied, ‘That is so, but when the water enters and the boat sinks, we too will drown’” (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6).
Spiritual leaders commit to serving all congregants regardless of their moral character, but it is the job of the congregational staff, board, and lay leaders to shield spiritual leaders when this goes overboard. Most abuse goes unseen: 3 AM phone calls on issues that could wait until the morning, 5-page emails with 20 questions, and complaints about the potato chip brand served at Kiddush.
In extreme cases, a farbisener hunt (mean, bitter person) can threaten to turn our warm spiritual homes into dreary and toxic places. Thus, when they speak gossip, complain left and right, and abuse community privileges, everyone should work cooperatively to address the problem. Fortunately, the kvetcher, schnorer, and mazik are exceptions. The majority of congregants are wonderful, and they enrich and enjoy each other’s company. They make the tireless rabbi’s toil worth the effort.
We can all pause to ask ourselves: what type of congregant am I? Where do I operate as the compliment-giver, volunteer-giver, and the humble servant? Where do I operate as the kvetcher, schnorer, and mazik? Am I adding positive energy to the congregation or am I draining the community? Am I defending congregational leaders and congregants who are being drained? Sometimes we have to inquire of others what role we play as we may have blind spots.
Spiritual homes should prioritize inclusivity so that all feel welcome but this does not mean that everything goes. To ensure that a community is inclusive, warm, and safe, there need to be limits and practices that are identified as harmful to one or all.
Congregations are not places where we seek to be served but holy sanctuaries where we learn the art of giving to actualize our potentials.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.